The WCAC is arguably the top conference in the country. Boasting four teams who perennially are in or near the national top 25, rarely does a week go by where there is not a big game, once conference play begins.
Perhaps the biggest of them all is St. John’s vs. Gonzaga.
On Saturday, the Eagles and Cadets will meet for the 98th time. Considered the longest-running Catholic high school football rivalry, Gonzaga leads the series 47-45 with five ties.
A rivalry of this stature is magnified when the teams involved are at the top of their respective games, as is the case this weekend with Gonzaga (8-1) ranked No. 1 in NBC Sports Washington's rankings and St. John’s (5-4), No. 2.
Although all-time history will make for great tailgate fodder and alumni will undoubtedly spend the lead up rehashing moments in games from 5-10 years past, for the current iteration of Eagle and Cadet, the lasting memories” derive from a far more recent date, November 10th, 2018. And a pointed question: “Was it a fumble or was it not?"
When Gonzaga and St.John’s met for the 97th time, it was during the first round of last season’s WCAC playoffs. The 9-0 Cadets were the No. 1 seed. After navigating a national schedule unblemished, they earned the right to be considered a top-five team in the country.
Having won the 2017 WCAC championship, and touting a star-studded roster, the Cadets were considered a shoo-in to repeat. The Eagles were merely another step along their path.
The Eagles (7-3) a No. 4 seed, entered the match-up a decided underdog. They were coming off a stretch in conference play in which they’d lost three of four games including a 34-17 defeat at the hands of the Cadets the week before.
From the start, it was evident this one would be a dog-fight. Zaga led 3-0 early. Threatening to score again, the Cadets forced a Gonzaga fumble and returned it for a touchdown and a 6-3 halftime lead.
The Eagles went up 10-6 in the 3rd on a Caleb Williams run and seized control moments later when Dean Engram returned a punt for a touchdown extending their lead to 17-6.
With their backs against the wall and dream season fading away, SJC woke up. Sol-Jay Maiava found Rakim Jarrett in the corner of the end zone for 6. A two-point conversion made the score 17-14 in the final quarter.
With under two minutes to play, the Cadets drove the ball inside the Eagles 10-yard line. The Cadets opted to keep the ball on the ground, bleeding the time away.
Ron Cook ran for four yards and the clock ticked under 1:30. St. John’s handed the ball to Cook again —Gonzaga LB Sean Johns broke through the line, he and Josh Williams twisted Cook around bringing him down to rest atop a purple defender. With no whistle being blown, the ball spilled out. Making a heads-up play, Aaron Davis picked it up and returned it 95 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.
Was it a fumble or should the runner have been signaled down? The call will be debated for eternity.
“The lesson we learned is you can’t leave the game in doubt and let others decide what’s going to happen to you”, said St. John’s head coach Joe Casamento.
Gonzaga went on to win the WCAC championship. St. John’s went home.
Since that game, the Eagles have been flying high. They’ve won 10 of their last 11 games, their only loss being a five-overtime thriller to Good Counsel.
With a bend-but-don’t break defense, stellar offensive line and two-headed monster at running back, coach Randy Trivers has the Eagles clicking on all cylinders. Five-star quarterback Caleb Williams is a household name amongst recruiting circles and the Eagles football program has soared into a new stratosphere.
The Eagles have been ranked in the top two all season long, holding the No. 1 spot for six of nine weeks.
The Cadets' road has been rocky at times. They’ve endured a rash of injuries and at one point, a four-game losing streak, but they believe they have learned from their trials,
“Those four games, those four losses, I don’t want to feel that [pain] anymore”, said Mekhail Sherman.
St. John’s has embodied that spirit and found a will to win no matter the circumstance. Despite injuries calling for defensive linemen to start on the o-line, back-up quarterbacks leading game-winning drives and underclassmen playing significant roles, St. John’s has overcome adversity and got red-hot at the right time. Winners of three in a row, the Cadets have climbed back near the top of the mountain.
Much has changed since November 10th, 2018. Gonzaga is no longer an underdog, nor have the Cadets been penciled in as WCAC champions. What has stayed the same is the intensity and excitement surrounding this game.
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 2 St. John’s. The Eagles and Cadets may be meeting for the 98th time on Saturday, but nothing about this rivalry feels old. It’s born anew each time they step on the field.